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The First Afghan War - Disaster for the British

Few, few shall part, where many meet
The snow shall be their winding sheet,
And every turf beneath their feet
Shall be a soldier's sepulcher.

The origins and causes of the First Afghan War, as it came to be known, can be reduced to a few major concepts. Most had to do with British fear of Russian power encroaching Indian territory, due to the continued Persian-led but Russian-assisted siege on the western Afghan city of Herat, which the Persians had long considered their territory. In addition, many British operated under the incorrect assumption that the Afghan people would welcome an English puppet ruler. One has to remember that we are dealing with people from the mid 19th Century, not the enlightened cross-cultural, diversity-aware multi-ethnic tolerance of today's 21'st Century. ( Insert Wry Historical Irony Here..)

The actual intrigues, power struggles, treachery and bumbling political and military decisions are fascinating, almost humorous were they not so tragically fatal to so many innocent people, and not a little informative and somewhat familiar - especially in light of such more recent foreign adventures as the U.S. - Vietnam conflict, or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980's, the US involvement in Iraq and perhaps even our current situation in Afghanistan. During this time period, one has to remember that there was no real state of Afghanistan per se, the British East India Company ruled most of India as a 'trading outpost", and the British Crown wanted only that the EIC not get involved in more costly wars. There was both a government (Queen's) army and an EIC military presence in India, but the vast majority of soldiers were Hindu, serving under English officers.

The story of this,  one of Britain's worst military disasters ever, is fascinating - but first, it will help to go over the cast list in our program - stick with me on this, it gets more and more interesting...

  • George Eden, first Lord of Auckland, the East India Company's Governor-General of India. Somewhat wishy-washy, not well liked among the military staff, tended to be bossed around by his unmarried sisters-
  • Emily and Fanny Eden, both of whom accompanied Lord A. to India and set about dusting the place off.

  • William Hay Macnaghten, political secretary to Auckland and general smarmy aide-de-camp. Very ambitious, unwilling to listen to military advisors, he had the ear of Auckland and could talk him into most anything. And would. A dedicated Russophobe, he formed misguided opinions as to how eagerly the Afghan people sought British rule, and now easy it would be to place and maintain a puppet prince in Kabul.  Macnaghten was good friends with...

  • Lord Palmerston, Russia-hating British Foreign Secretary in...

  • Prime Minister Melbourne's cabinet.  Palmerston was married to PM Melbourne's sister. The PM had a soft spot for the Lord Auckland's sister Emily Eden, but that's ok because her pal Lord Byron was a close friend of 
  • John Hobhouse, president of the India Board of Control, who was carrying on with Melbourne's wife. The Board of Control were the directors of the East India Company, a trading venture set up in the early 1600s to encourage trade with the East, such as trying to sell British woolen sweaters to the Indian people..As it turned out, their most lucrative trade was exporting opium to China and hooking most if its citizenry on the drug.
  • Alexander "Bokhara"  Burnes, a wildly popular, ambitious young Political Agent, noted above, envied by Macnaghten for his boisterous self-promotion, and success with women.

  • Mohan Lal, Kashmiri interpreter, spy,  and right-hand-man to Burnes.
  • Dost Mohammed Khan,  Emir of Afghanistan, of the Barakzai clan, who had come to unsteady power after...
  • Shah Shujah, of the Durrani clan, had been forced into exile in 1809, taking his 600-woman harem and most of the crown jewels with him, seeking refuge with the famed Sikh... 


  • Maharajah Ranjit Singh, aging but charismatic leader of the Sikh, sworn enemies of the Moslem Afghans and uneasy buffer between Afghanistan and India in the independent state of Punjab. He took the crown jewels from Shujah, which included the fabled Koh-i-noor diamond, at the time the largest in the world, as rent and room and board for the harem. After a few years, he got so sick and tired of Shah Shujah mucking about with Afghan spies and all that he kicked him out the country and Shujah ended up in exile in Ludhiana, in British India, where he wheedled a  small pension out of Lord Auckland,  and the Brits looked the other way when it came to his harem.  Singh was noted for employing foreign adventurers and military men as advisors and generals, having had American, English, Italian, German and French officers in his employ, two of whom are pictured below. Emily Eden described him as a "dissolute old man with one eye and grey whiskers that made him look like a mouse."


  • Alexander Gardner, (or GARDINER) Scottish-American mercenary, commanding Ranjit Singh's powerful and well-trained artillery forces, in a uniform of his own design, including tartan turban. Gardiner played a fascinating and little-remembered part in this drama, having started in the Indian Army, then gradually working his way around the subcontinent. He lived to a ripe old age, setting up shop in Srinagar, the capital of the state of Kashmir. He  lived well into his 90's, entertaining nearly every traveler and explorer who came through Kashmir on the way to the north and west.. Very little is known about his life, as many of his stories were "discounted" by contemporaries, He did write a book after Singh's death, "The Fall of the Sikh Empire", reprint copies of which may be found after diligent search. If his stories are true, Gardiner explored more of the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and the otherwise unknown and forbidden western Himalaya than anyone before him, and his travels were not equaled in scope for half a century. His problem was, he didn't explore to explore, he just tried to stay onestep ahead of whoever was chasing him. Let's just say not all of his behavior was exemplary...Bottom right is a picture of him during the service to Ranjit Singh, surrounded by other members of the Sikh army, probably taken in the late 1830s or early 1840s.

    Note : Unfortunagely, OUR Alexander Gard(i)ner shares his name with a noted American Civil War photographer. They are NOT the same person, obviously, but Google and the internet has far more information on the photographer than on the raconteur...

  • Josiah Harlan, American Quaker, and "The Man Who Would be King" - Born near my home town in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he had sailed to India to make his fortune when he got a "Dear Harlan" letter from his girl back home. He He joined the army of the British East India company as a (completely untrained) surgeon, then more or less deserted a few years later,  Harlan was enlisted by Shah Shujah to attempt an earlier overthrow of Dost Mohammed  in the 1830s. Arriving as the first American ever in Afghanistan, he instead came to respect and enjoy Dost. The Afghan king liked the odd man, proclaiming him "Prince of Ghor" in perpetuity. He was the first man to raise the Stars and Stripes in Central Asia.  After a few years service to Dost Mohammed,, the bored Harlan went to Ranjit Singh, who also enlisted his services as a spy, trader, and explorer. Arriving back  in Kabul just as the Army of the Indus did,  the English put him on the first boat back to Philadelphia.  He later wrote a scathing history denouncing the British excursion, and was roundly vilified in turn by the English press and political leaders.  He fought in the American Civil War, tried to interest  the US Army in using camels in the desert southwest, and died a forgotten man in San Francisco in 1871. He was perhaps the only player to have been employed by all four parties to this little exercise - Dost Mohammed, Shah Shujah, Ranjit Singh, and the British. Only recently has this fascinating figure in American history started to be remembered, and a great biography of him was recently written by Ben Macintyre, "The Man Who Would Be King."  Highly Recommended.


Principal Settings:

  • Lahore - Ranjit Singh's capital in the Punjab. The Punjab encompassed most of what is now Pakistan, from the Karakoram Mountains in the north, to the Arabian Sea-port city Karachi.
  • Peshawar - major Punjabi city on the east side of the Khyber Pass, run by Dost Mohammed's rival half-brother Sultan Mohammed Khan, now controlled by the Sikhs, to the major consternation of Dost Mohammed.
  • Kabul - in northern Afghanistan, where Dost Mohammed lived. I hesitate to call it "the capital" since there was not really much political power there.
  • Herat - major town in western Afghanistan, usually Persian in loyalty, now under siege by a joint Persian/Russian force, held by the Saddozai clan under Shah Kamran, sworn enemy of the Barakzai and the Durrani. 
  • Kandahar - major town in southern Afghanistan
  • Jalalabad - first big city on the western side of the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan.
  • Calcutta - British capital of India, way over on the eastern coast of India on the Bengal Sea
  • Delhi - Major India city in the northwest, about 300 miles southeast of the Khyber Pass
So, when our program begins, we have Dost Mohammed in Kabul entertaining Burnes and the Russian agent Vitkevitch**; Shah Shujah in exile in the Indian city of  Ludhiana with his harem of 600 women but minus the Koh-i-noor, crafty old Ranjit Singh in Lahore,and  the Persians and Russians and one of Dost Mohammed's brothers laying siege to Herat,  Governor General Auckland, his sisters & Macnaghten in Calcutta, and Gardiner  and Harlan  floating around here and there getting into trouble. 

The Punjabi Sikhs had taken control of Peshawar, with the cooperation of another of  Dost Mohammed's half-brothers, irritating the hell out of Dost Mohammed. Shah Shujah wanted desperately to be back in control in Afghanistan. The British were peeing their pants over the Russians in Herat and Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan.. And Ranjit Singh was sitting back with an amused grin...

In  January of 1838, on the advice of the Russophobic and somewhat power-mad Macnaghten, PM Auckland wrote Dost Mohammed a rather condescending letter telling him to kick the small Russian party out of Afghanistan, and give up his claims to Peshawar, or else. The British were desperate to keep Singh and the Sikh as "'friends", and did not want to do anything to offend them. On the other hand, they did not want a Russia-friendly Afghan nation on their western border either. They were in an odd situation, being one of the most powerful and rich empires then extant, trying to curry the favor of two backwater, despotic kingdoms that hated each other with a passion, had little to offer Britain, no real strategic importance (as it turned out), and absolutely no concept of Western diplomacy, ethics, morality, or justice...The Western mind still to this day hasn't improved, or learned, much.

 Mohammed and Burnes were both taken aback by the letter, and Burnes was loath to leave his friend and the man he thought best suited to rule Afghanistan. The British recalled him in April 1838. 

The British, in desperation, landed a naval and marine force near the head of the Persian Gulf and managed to get the Persian Shah to give up on his somewhat stalled siege of  Herat and force the Russians to disavow their own part in the deal. But they (Auckland and Macnaghten) were peeved at Dost Mohammed for not fighting the Russians for them.  The ambitious and somewhat Machiavellian Macnaghten hatched a plan which, while perhaps not with the full support of Auckland, at least made the Governor General realize that if it succeeded he will have handled the Russians and the Afghans in one fell swoop. 

They asked  Ranjit Singh and his Sikh armies to invade Afghanistan for them, and install old Shah Shujah on the throne. In return, the new Shah would let Singh retain control of Peshawar and the area around it.  Ranjit Singh, whose western frontier bordered Afghanistan and who had a healthy respect for the fighting spirit of the Afghans, refused to allow his troops to be used in such an adventure, besides which he already had Peshawar anyway.

Macnaghten still pushed, and after parlaying with Shah Shujah, managed to get Singh to sign off on a secret plan to re-install Shujah on the throne in Kabul. Singh did not have to supply any army, he would be able to retain Peshawar in perpetuity, and would be rid of at least one, if not two troublesome Afghans and a large portion of their army, an army he respected for their toughness and ferocity. Auckland, on October 1, 1838 published a document known as the 'Simla Manifesto', stating that Dost Mohammed, because he flirted with the Russians, and would not promise not to attack India (the Afghans had sacked and burned Delhi in the 1750s), should not be allowed to remain as the leader of Afghanistan, and that the British would replace him with Shah Shujah. For sheer cheekiness and audacity, this document ranks above nearly every official British statement in the last two hundred years.

Burnes was rightfully horrified at his Governor General's idiocy, and pleaded with Auckland and Macnaghten to reconsider, but the latter, jealous of Burnes's earlier success and desirous himself of some power and acclaim, would not budge. Accordingly, they began gathering up an Army to march to Kabul and install their puppet, Shah Shujah, as the Emir Of Afghanistan. 

Next - The Army of the Indus

** The story of this agent, variously Russian-ized as Vitkevitch, or perhaps the Polish Witkiewicz; is also fascinating - some authors have him as a Lithuanian, some as a Polish nobleman; some have him posted to Kabul as punishment, some as reward. In any event, he and Burnes has several gentlemanly get-togethers, only half trusting each other, and as the British closed in, Vitkevitch/Witkiewicz was recalled. His death just a few months later, of a suspicious "suicide" in St. Petersburg cries out for investigation...